American automakers mostly concentrated on building large cars and trucks because that’s where the money was, and that was what most of their customers wanted.
But the federal government is mandating that car companies build more fuel-stingy (and thus less-polluting) vehicles. And a growing number of Americans are accepting such models, partly because they’ve had a few bad gas price scares in recent years and because above-average domestic small models finally are being built.
Thus we have General Motors’ new compact Chevrolet Cruze sedan, which has been sold for more than a year in Europe. It will be marketed throughout the globe, while being modified for each region and carrying different badges.
With all its competition, the front-drive Cruze should have been here two years ago. It looks trim, but largely nondescript. The attractive interior is commendably quiet and is roomy enough to let the Cruze be classified as a compact. It has good seats and small (but easily worked) controls. Outward visibility is good.
Fit and finish are excellent. Doors of this nicely built sedan shut firmly, and door-mounted driver power window switches are strategically located so the person at the wheel doesn’t accidentally lower a rear window in a rain storm. But front console cupholders are very low, the deep console center bin is tiny and the front passenger seatback control is hard to reach and feels as if made from cheap plastic.
The front is roomy, but a 6-footer will find knee room tight behind a tall driver. And the center of the rear seat is stiff and has a very short fold-down armrest with two cupholders.
The 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine of the Cruze once would have been scoffed at by Americans because of its small size. It looks tiny under the hood, but generates 138 horsepower and has the driveability of a larger engine, although by nature it must work hard because of its size.
Performance is lively in town and acceleration is smooth, with no turbo larg. There’s lots of punch from low rpms—unusual for many small turbo motors.
The Cruze is surprisingly quiet, but 0-60 mph takes a so-so 8.9 seconds and 65-75 mph passing is average. Most Cruze models are expected to have the 1.4 turbo.
But a car doesn’t have to be fast to be fun to drive. The Cruze has a European feel. Steering is quick and firm, handling is sharp and cornering is pool-table-flat. The ride is supple, although some bumps can be felt, and braking is good, with a nice-feeling pedal.
The other available engine is a normally aspirated 1.8-liter four-cylinder with 136 horsepower (some early Chevy data says 138) and appreciably less torque than the smaller turbo motor. It comes in the base Cruze LS model with either a six-speed manual gearbox or six-speed automatic transmission, with an easily used manual-shift feature. I haven’t tried the 1.8 engine yet.
The manual also works with the 1.4 turbo engine in a special Cruze “Eco” model to achieve a Chevy-projected 40 mpg on highways, helped by such things as lighter weight and lower-rolling-resistance tires. Higher-line Cruze models all get the automatic.
Only regular-grade fuel is needed for either engine. Estimated fuel economy for the 1.8 is 26 mpg city and 36 highway with the manual and 22 and 35 with the automatic. Discounting the Eco model, Cruze figures with the 1.4 turbo and automatic are 24 and 36.
List prices without a $720 destination charge are $16,275 for the LS with the manual and $17,200 with the automatic. Then come the automatic $18,175 1LT, $20,675 2LT and top-line $21,975 LTZ. There’s no price as of this writing for the manual-transmission Eco.
Even the LS is pretty well-equipped. It has air conditioning, tilt/telescoping wheel, split folding rear seat, power windows locks with remote keyless entry and an AM/FM stereo/CD/MP3/auxiliary audio input sound system with 6 speakers.
Safety features include a stability control system and traction control, besides anti-lock brakes.
Move to the 1LT and you add the automatic transmission and power body color mirrors. The 2LT adds a power leather heated driver’s seat, remote start, cruise control, steering wheel audio controls and 16-inch alloy (as opposed to 16-inch painted) wheels.
The top dog LTZ adds items including automatic climate control, rear park assist, 18-inch alloy wheels and all-disc brakes.
I tested the $20,675 2LT, which had a bottom line price of $21,870 with 17-inch alloy wheels, all-disc brakes and a compact spare tire instead of a tire sealant kit, beides a $720 destination charge.
The large trunk has a rather high opening, but rear seatbacks flip forward and sit flat to great increase cargo capacity, helped by a large pass-through area from the trunk to the rear-seat area.
The hood is held open by an old-fashioned prop rod, and some fluid filler areas are at the rear of the engine compartment instead of being more conveniently grouped up front.
The Cruze promises to enhance Chevrolet’s small-car reputation, which has taken hits over the years because of Japanese and, more recently, South Korean competition.
Dan Jedlicka is the former autom0tive writer for the Chicago Sun-Times. To read more of his new car reviews and industry content, visit: www.danjedlicka.com.